For months now, the pandemic has been taking a toll on the mental health of new mothers.
Before the coronavirus crisis upended the lives of new parents, an estimated 14 percent of new mothers suffered from postpartum depression. Now, according to a recent survey of 1,123 pregnant and postpartum women, 36 percent are disclosing symptoms of depression and 22 percent reported symptoms of anxiety. Another 9 percent of the mothers and mothers-to-be said the pandemic had triggered feelings of grief. Before her daughter was born in August, pop singer Katy Perry captured this sentiment in a tweet: “Sometimes I don’t know what’s worse trying to avoid the virus or the waves of depression that come with this new norm.”
As a perinatal psychologist, I hear from new mothers all the time about how the pandemic has shaken their emotional well-being. “I’m worried my baby will catch covid and die,” many have said. “How can I return to work if it’s not safe to send my baby to day care?” patients have asked. And now, with holiday travel and in-person family gatherings called off, many mothers feel “lonelier than ever.”
“I know self-care is important, but I really want a sense of community,” one patient shared.
With less social support, more financial worries and constant concerns about getting sick, mothers face new stressors, which increase their chances of becoming anxious or depressed, researchers say. Mothers with a personal or family history of trauma, anxiety or depression are also already at a heightened risk of suffering from a perinatal mood disorder. For instance, in the latest study, women with a history of mental health concerns were 1.6 to 3.7 times as likely to suffer from depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Communities of color have been hit especially hard by covid-19, and women of color are more likely to suffer from postpartum depression (PPD). For Latina mothers, rates of PPD can be as high as 54 percent, researchers have found. Research also shows that Black women have more concerns about prenatal care, their birth experience and their job insecurity. As a result, Black mothers may be more likely to struggle with maternal mental health concerns, but health-care disparities can make accessing mental-health care more challenging for these groups.
Treatment for perinatal mood disorders includes psychotherapy, group support and medication (when necessary). In addition, doctors often recommend self-care activities like meditation, exercise and journaling. But after months of social distancing, many mothers are fed up with solo models of self-help. What they want is social support and community care. “I know a lot of moms want ‘alone time,’ but I want ‘together time,’” one patient told me.
Social support provides reassurance, nurturing and advice from community helpers like mom mentors, fellow parents, therapists and lactation consultants. Studies show that social support can bolster mental health and help lessen symptoms of postpartum depression. One study found that mothers who had someone to help them in a crisis and listen to them when they needed to talk felt more supported in their motherhood roles.
With covid-19 cases surging, social support meetups and groups for new parents are mostly taking place online. These online communities can become a village of support to help parents get through this tough time.
But these outlets can be difficult to navigate, particularly if pregnant women or new moms aren’t aware of them. As it may be easy to feel lonelier than ever during the holidays, here are some resources to help.
When we take on a new role at work, mentors are experts who show us the ropes. Mom mentors do the same thing for new parents. As experienced mothers with older children, mentors answer questions, provide advice and offer reassurance. For instance, a mentor might relay how to avoid pandemic-induced burnout or share child-care resources. Mom mentors who have recovered from postpartum depression or anxiety can offer encouragement and guidance to struggling new moms.
Mentors can be found through local parenting groups or online. On Facebook, private groups like “Moms Mentoring Other Moms” and “Moms Supporting Moms” can be useful for parents who want group mentoring from seasoned mothers. The Moms Mentoring Circle offers a menu of options such as one-on-one coaching and group coaching. In her research on motherhood, psychologist Suniya Luthar found that having authentic relationships and friendships increased maternal well-being. To provide a nurturing community for mothers, Luthar and her colleagues offer online groups.
For mothers looking to meet new parents going through similar experiences, peer support can be a lifeline. As a psychologist who facilitates a postpartum support group, I know women often share that hearing someone else’s story inspired them to share their own.
For women in need of mental health resources, Pooja Lakshmin, a perinatal psychiatrist and assistant professor at George Washington University, offers a free “COVID-19 Maternal Well-Being” group on Facebook. Lakshmin’s group is open to pregnant and postpartum women, as well as those struggling with infertility. In addition, Postpartum Support International provides free, virtual support groups specifically for South Asian parents, dads and non-birth partners, NICU parents and military moms. On Instagram, mental health advocate Elyse Fox heads up the Sad Girls Club, a safe space where Black mothers and people of color can discuss their mental health struggles and support one another.
Since the pandemic began, I’ve counseled more mothers who are struggling with low milk supply and breastfeeding challenges. For moms with breastfeeding questions and concerns, “Breastfeeding Confidential” is a private group on Facebook led by registered nurse and lactation consultant Andrea Tran. On Instagram, @mommyknowsbest provides breastfeeding tips for moms.
Unlike peer support, group therapy is a type of therapy that’s led by a mental health professional. Often covered by insurance, group therapy can help mothers heal from grief and PTSD, as well as postpartum depression and anxiety. Like individual therapy, group therapy often begins with an intake session, allowing mothers to meet the therapist and ask questions beforehand. Unlike peer support communities where participation is optional, group therapy requires each member to participate because it’s part of the therapy process.
The Motherhood Center in New York offers affordable, virtual groups for women diagnosed with prenatal or postpartum depression, as well as a group for bereaved parents. They also provide a library of covid-related webinars to educate expectant and new parents about giving birth during the pandemic, coping with coronavirus-related anxiety and managing partnerships. Therapy groups can also be found on Psychology Today.
Of course, therapy is a privilege that requires time and money — two things that are in short supply for many new mothers. Universities with graduate programs in psychology and social work may offer low-fee or free mental-health care for the community. Therapy sites like “Better Help” provide low-cost therapy and offer financial assistance. Hospitals may also have free prenatal and postpartum support groups, as well as free counseling for expectant and new parents.
Whatever type of help you choose, it’s important to feel safe and supported. Like talking to a good friend, your support group, therapy group or mentor should be a place where you can say what you need to say without worrying about judgment.